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Zany promotions put Laurel Shopping Center in spotlight

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Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Giant Food stuck to their own marketing and, as a rule, did not participate in promotions sponsored by the shopping centers where its stores were located. In a recent interview, however, Dennis Berman, son of Laurel Shopping Center developer Melvin Berman, recalled that Izzy Cohen, Giant's longtime CEO, told his father that the one exception to their rule was Laurel Shopping Center. As Berman remembers it, Cohen told his father that they participated in Laurel's promotions because, "They're the only ones that work."

Laurel Shopping Center was developed by Berman Enterprises, partners Melvin and Wolford Berman, and Arthur Robinson. After years of owning the Olney Acres Dairy plant on Route 216 in Scaggsville, the partners got their first taste of retail development with the Ingleside Shopping Center on Route 40 in Catonsville in 1954. Its success led them to concentrate on developing shopping centers, starting with Laurel.

Their marketing and promotions ideas were simple. The partners "loved family-style, corny stuff. Animals, circuses, shows — all that stuff," said Dennis Berman, and they were particularly fond of helicopters. The concept was simple, but the implementation was always on a grand scale.

Leading up to the Nov. 14, 1956, opening, local media was bombarded with press releases about the new shopping marvel being constructed in Laurel. One dated September 1956 was aimed squarely at the June Cleavers of Laurel:

"She shall have music whenever she shops at the Laurel Shopping Center — but it won't be rock n' roll. The musical background will be soft and soothing to her earringed ear, with Musak-transmitted melodies mainly of light classical and popular ballad character. … The new center will be a personal domain to the lady with shopping bag in hand and a bargain-hunting glint in her eye. She shall be a pampered queen with 1,000 willing servants in 30 retail categories waiting eagerly to respond to her beckoning manicure. … In a single day's stroll through this unique shopper's world, a housewife on a spree can have her hair done, photograph the baby, fill the car with groceries, outfit the children and herself from hat to toe in the latest fashions, replace the old TV set, get Junior a new bike and Dad a new set of tools, decorate the table with a bouquet and a bottle of champagne, and even get some aspirins to take the pain out of hubby's anguished cries over his dissolved paycheck. … the pampered shopper won't even dampen her toe nail polish as she moves from store to store under a 15 foot canopied promenade. …"

"Great Excitement Among the Earthbound Population"

In a 22-page Special Events Program that described the promotions both before and after the grand opening, the first gimmick was dubbed Operation Snowfall. Four days before the opening, thousands of paper "gyro-gliders" were dropped from a helicopter, with every 10th glider containing a coupon for a store in the center. According to the program, "This paper 'snowfall' will blanket the ten-mile Laurel Shopping Center shopping zone causing great excitement among the earthbound population."

When the helicopter wasn't busy dropping gliders, it flew over that same 10-mile radius for three days blaring announcements "inviting the public to come out and enjoy the fun." In between announcements, it also played the Laurel Shopping Center theme song.

According to Dennis Berman the lyrics were: "Strike up the band, come and join the big parade to the brand new Laurel Shopping Center. Fifteen Fabulous Days of the latest Fall displays, and exciting contests you can enter. There's a carnival for kiddies and helicopter rides, famous stars, big name bands, and a whole lot more besides. So join in the fun and we'll give three hip hoorays for the brand new Laurel Shopping Center."

Fifteen Fabulous Days

On opening day, the Washington Star reported, "One of the biggest shopping centers in the Washington area swings wide its doors today to the tune of what must be the most remarkable fanfare ever to herald such an event." The "remarkable fanfare" was the center's 15 Fabulous Days opening celebration.

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony with then-Gov. Theodore McKeldin, hosted by cowboy TV host Pick Temple, a musical program was held on the stage that backed up to the bank building in the middle of the shopping center, featuring Tex Ritter and Ray Eberle's orchestra.

For the next two weeks, every day from opening to closing was filled with drawings, celebrity appearances, contests, musical acts, carnivals, parades, helicopter rides and dozens of other events. To add glamour, according to the Special Events Program, "four beautiful Broadway showgirls" were "imported from New York … to provide a terrific visual impact" as they strolled through the center each day.

Sports stars made appearances and signed autographs, including players from the Orioles, Colts, Senators and Redskins. The football players gave an exhibition and served as judges for a contest between high school players.

There were horse shows, aviation shows, baton-twirling contests, cow-milking contests, marching bands and several dances in the parking lot. The Teenagers' Dance featured "Rivers Chambers and his orchestra, reputed to be the hottest combination this side of New Orleans, who can play sweet and hot in the teen-ager's groove." Jimmy Dean, who in 1956 had a local Washington radio show, performed with his Texas Wildcats in a country square dance.

The final night featured a "Prettiest Shopper Beauty Contest." According to the program, "a curvaceous parade of entrants … will parade their charms on a runway in the window of Frank's Hardware — making a striking contrast between hardware and soft curves. The improbable location was selected because of the perishability of bathing-suit-clad charmers in chill November temperatures."

Promoting all occasions

After the grand opening, Berman Enterprises continued its elaborate marketing gimmicks. Many years, Santa Claus arrived at the shopping center via helicopter. In1969 vaudeville veteran Sammy Ross, playing one of Santa's elves at the Laurel Shopping Center, was hired on the spot by the owner of the new Delaney's Irish Pizza Pub. Ross went on to play the Irish pub's resident leprechaun, Johnny O'Pal, for the next 27 years.

Every year on the Washington's Birthday holiday, the center sponsored Old Fashioned Days, with many of the employees in the shopping center in appropriate costumes. Frances Fliss, whose family owned Mel-Ron Fabrics, remembers center employees buying fabric and patterns to make costumes.

"It was great fun," she said, "and just about everybody took part."

During Old Fashioned Days the shopping center held contests for both employees and shoppers, offered concerts and barbershop quartets, and ran a free trolley around the shopping center.

The shopping center ran courtesy buses during the 1960s from a variety of apartment complexes, including Fox Rest and Snow Hill. The News Leader ran a photo of the inaugural courtesy bus from Snow Hill in November 1962, showing Wolford Berman greeting the shoppers and presenting each with a bottle of champagne.

When Berman Enterprises opened the enclosed Laurel Centre Mall in 1979, they held a miniversion of the 15 Fabulous Days. The celebration ran for 10 days in 1979 but this time consisted largely of concerts and dance exhibitions, with a few contests and marching bands thrown in. Each day had an ethnic theme, such as Italian Day, Hispanic Day, German Day.

One of the more unusual contests held at Laurel Centre was the beard growing contest, promoted for weeks in the News Leader, with $2,400 in prizes awarded.

When Berman Enterprises sold their interest in the Laurel Shopping Center in the 1980s, the imaginative and wacky promotions also retired. It's safe to say Laurel hasn't seen anything like it since.

Richard Friend, Peter Lewnes, and John Floyd II contributed to this story. History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Information for this story was found at the Laurel Historical Society's John Brennan Research Library. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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